There is an exodus occurring in American Christianity. This is not new. George Barna has reported a lot about disturbing trends in American Christianity, particularly Evangelical Christianity. These trends span denominational lines and having watched them and seen a lot of anecdotal evidence myself over the past 20 or so years I believe that they are now having a cascade effect with visible effects. Before the effects were covered over as mega-churches, seeker-friendly churches, the so-called “church growth movement” carved out rather large chunks out of denominational churches of all types. The common charge leveled against “traditional” denominational churches by the new non-denominational start-ups was that they were out of touch with people, hypocritical, immersed in promoting “boring” doctrine and not keeping up with the times in their worship style, preaching or service format. The new churches more often than not minimized the major doctrines of Christian orthodoxy, for all practical purposes reduced the Bible to a pop-psychology manual that Christians were to use to get all they wanted from God, particularly health and wealth but also self-esteem and just plain old feeling good. Those that taught anything that deviated back toward orthodoxy usually focus on things like eschatology or on moral issues, the “culture war” and align themselves closely with political movements and parties, sometimes becoming more focused on winning the political war than actually proclaiming the Gospel.
As a result much of the Christian landscape is dominated by churches that understand little of the Christian faith, no longer see value in practicing things like Baptism or Holy Communion and while they preach about “Biblical absolutes” in regard to abortion, an admittedly abhorrent practice and homosexuality they seem to gloss over other many moral issues including divorce, sex outside of marriage, materialism, greed and avarice, so long as those practicing them are on “our side.” Likewise they are prone to give people who actually oppose the Christian faith a pass if they fall on the same side of the political aisle. We are simple selective literalists.
As Barna’s studies have shown Evangelical Christians have worse rates of divorce, teenage sex outside of marriage and other moral problems than those that do not claim to be Christians. Likewise the lifestyles of many of the leaders of the Evangelical movement are prone to gross material excess and every year we see some Evangelical leader or leaders involved in some kind of sexual, financial or sometimes criminal activity. To me it seems that American Christianity is doctrinally impoverished, politically intolerant and morally bankrupt.
So Anne Rice announces that she is leaving Christianity but not Jesus and catalogued a list of things that she found that she could not live with inside the church. Since she announced this she has been the talk of the town. To those cynical to organized religion, though why we call any religion in America organized is beyond me, this is a boon. For those defending the faith it is also a boon as they have an identifiable “traitor to the faith” to go after rather than some amorphous concept or idea. Real heretics are so much more fun to go after. I have been amazed but not surprised at the number of articles condemning Rice. Most even if they don’t say it in the article they basically articulate the same thing that many of the early Church Fathers stated in regard to heretics and schismatics that left the church for the various heresies of the day almost all of which denied the nature of Christ, either his deity or humanity.
Rice has not done that. She has not denied the deity or humanity of Christ, his message of salvation or anything. She has protested and repudiated the outward actions of Christians and the institutional Church. Now whether one agrees with her assessment is another matter but she has not necessarily denied Christ. Her story is not yet completed, she may reconcile again with the Catholic Church or another Church. To condemn her at this point would be similar to condemn Francis of Assisi when he walked out of the church.
In fact to condemn Ms Rice at this point is to miss the point of her protest. Her protest is that the Church does not live the Gospel. Her critics almost universally attack her for her support of homosexuals. However a large part of that support is because her son is homosexual and to condemn her as a mother to that has lost one child at the age of 6 and is widowed for protesting the treatment that her son and other homosexuals have received from Christians is unfair to her and to them regardless of what one believes about homosexuality. It seems to me that homosexuality is about the only unpardonable sin to many American Christians and that is the biggest criticism that I see in what her critics have written. They may talk about her separating herself from the Church and thus Christ but it really seems more to be about why she did so. We Christians will tolerate about every sort of perversion and unfaithful action of people in the church to include leaders so long as it is not homosexuality. Divorce, no problem; gluttony, not an issue; murder, as long as it is state sanctioned; materialistic greed as long as we can link it to our own and the church’s prosperity; discrimination against people based on gender, race or religion, no problem so long as it is the name of national security or in the interest of our political party or church organization. The argument against her is a red herring to divert people from the real issue which is the dismal state of the church, in belief and practice in the United States.
You see the argument used against Ms. Rice that by separating herself from the Church that she has separated herself from Christ and is “in schism” itself is disingenuous. Every church body in this country can be accused of being in schism from someone and that includes the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox who to this day believe the other to be in schism. Likewise for Protestants, especially those in independent churches to call her into question is hypocritical, many of those churches were born in schism and have few discernible beliefs or practices that link them to historic Christianity except that they “believe in Jesus.” Protestantism itself is a “protest” against the Church and its practices, the Catholic Church to be sure but nonetheless at its heart a protest that is little different from that of Ms. Rice.
You see that is the problem with American Christianity. We want to selectively apply scripture and the teachings of the early Church to other Christians that we don’t agree with and that is something that we all do to one degree or another and it does not matter if we are conservatives or liberals, Catholics or Protestants, seeker friendly or traditionalist. No matter who we are or what our theological stance we all somehow ensure that we exclude someone else or some group from the Kingdom of God and to make it more fun we can all find something in Scripture or tradition to buttress our position. As much as we want it to be the issue is not belief or doctrine, but practice and just who we allow the grace of God to extend to.
I don’t think that it is right to single Ms. Rice out after all let’s be truthful if a person has left a church for any issue including doctrine they are in schism. If a person has been part of a church split at the local or the denominational level where they have left their “mother church” they too are in schism. If someone leaves their church for a season or forever they have done the same thing that Ms Rice has done and I don’t see anyone out there making this point or going after all of us that are in schism from someone.
Let’s face it there are in the United States alone anywhere from 25,000-40,000 distinct denominational groups depending on your source. David Barrett lists 34,000 separate faith groups in the world that consider themselves to be Christian (David B. Barrett, et al., “World Christian Encyclopedia : A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World,” Oxford University Press, (2001)) In fact, many consider themselves alone to be the only “true” Christian church. Now if you ask me that sounds like a whole lot of schism going on and just looking at the numbers there are a lot of people outside the walls of someone else’s church and therefore outside of the grace of God.
So with all of this in place I have to go back to some of my original statements of how we got to where we are and why Ms. Rice’s “defection” is symptomatic of a far bigger problem for American Christianity. We have over the past 40 years or so since the societal revolt of the 1960s been collectively as Christians been laying turds in our own punchbowl. We have renounced any semblance of coherent doctrine because “doctrine is boring.” Thus when we look at the most popular preachers in the country we see that one, T.D. Jakes holds a position on the Godhead (Jesus only modalism) which has been condemned by the church for like 1700 years or so. The there is Joel Osteen who seems like a nice guy but seems to have no recognizable Christian doctrine in his preaching, except that God loves us. I have no problem with that but that isn’t all that there is. Of course there is Rick Warren and before him Bill Hybels both of whom have taken the non-denominational identification to new heights. I won’t even go into morality as I mentioned that in a recent post about the marital problems of another big time preacher, Benny Hinn who has promulgated more heresy than I can list. On the Catholic side we have a church that despite official statements seems to still be protecting criminals and sexual predators and silencing those in the Church who raise their voices in protest to include the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schoenborn the driving force behind the current Catechism of the Catholic Church.
For better or worse the church in the United States has become the “Church of What’s Happening Now.” We have tossed out the riches of 2000 years of faith, replaced them with religious mumbo jumbo that most closely aligns with our special interest and when people go from church to church or drop the faith completely we wonder why?
As a military Chaplain I have had a unique perspective on the state of Christianity in this country. My experience of how people classify themselves religiously nearly mirrors what is seen in the work of the Barna Research Group and the American Religious Identification Surveys of 2001 and 2008, by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. What I have seen in almost 20 years of being a chaplain is both a decline in those that identify themselves as Christians and those that while they identify themselves as Christians have no consistent practice or identification with any particular denomination or group. The numbers claiming “No Religious Preference” and “Christian No Denomination” seem to go up every year. Likewise the numbers identifying themselves as Wiccan or any number of other more earth based or eastern religions is increasing. Many of these young men and women were raised as Christians or had some kind of “Christian” experience before going off to what they are now.
Barna notes that “There does not seem to be revival taking place in America. Whether that is measured by church attendance, born again status, or theological purity, the statistics simply do not reflect a surge of any noticeable proportions.” (“Annual study reveals America is spiritually stagnant,” Barna Research Group, Ltd., at: http://www.barna.org/) and that “…evangelicals remain just 7% of the adult population. That number has not changed since the Barna Group began measuring the size of the evangelical public in 1994….less than one out of five born again adults (18%) meet the evangelical criteria.” (“Annual Barna Group Survey Describes Changes in America’s Religious Beliefs and Practices,” The Barna Group, 2005-APR-11, at:http://www.barna.org/ )
The American Religious Identification Survey 2008 notes other troubling facts for American Christianity. Among them:
The percentage of American adults that identify themselves with a specific religion dropped from 89.5% to 79.9%:
Americans who identify themselves as Christian dropped from 86.2 to 76.0 — a loss of 10.2 percentage points in 18 years — about 0.6 percentage points per year.
Americans identifying themselves as Protestant dropped from 60.0 to 50.9%.
Catholics declined from 26.2% to 25.1%
The Catholic population in the Northeast fell: From 1900 to 2008, it went from 50% in New England to 36%, and from 44% to 37% in New York state. Apparently to immigration, it rose during the same interval from 29% to 37% in California, and 23% to 32% in Texas.
Religious Jews declined from1.8% to 1.2%
The fastest growing religion (in terms of percentage) is Wicca. According to Religion Link “Specifically, the number of Wiccans more than doubled from 2001 to 2008, from 134,000 to 342,000, and the same held true for neo-pagans, who went from 140,000 in 2001 to 340,000 in 2008.”
Finally 15.0% (14.1%) do not follow any organized religion. There are more Americans who say they are not affiliated with any organized religion than there are Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans combined. (Cathy Grossman, “Charting the unchurched in America,” USA Today, 2002-MAR-7, at: http://www.usatoday.com/life/dcovthu.htm)
The ARIS survey noted the following about those that left or switched churches:
About 16% of adults have changed their identification.
For the largest group, the change was abandoning all religion.
Baptists picked up the largest number of any religion: 4.4 million. But they also lost 4.6 million.
Roman Catholics lost the greatest number, 9.5 million. However, they also picked up 4.3 million.
Those are just the numbers. To look within we have to look at behaviors and we find that American Christians on the whole are very similar to those with no religion whatsoever. Rates of divorce, teenage pregnancy and other social indicators often show that American Christians differ little from and sometimes are in worse shape than their non-Christian neighbors.
If we look at reasons for people leaving the faith Barna has the answer. To put it in Padre Steve terminology “we don’t treat people well.” Barna notes: “Based on past studies of those who avoid Christian churches, one of the driving forces behind such behavior is the painful experiences endured within the local church context. In fact, one Barna study among unchurched adults shows that nearly four out of every ten non-churchgoing Americans (37%) said they avoid churches because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people.” (http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/362-millions-of-unchurched-adults-are-christians-hurt-by-churches-but-can-be-healed-of-the-pain)
Instead of condemning Anne Rice maybe we as Christians, Churches and Church leaders need to get over defending ourselves and get ourselves and our churches right with God, one another and our neighbors. Maybe Anne Rice is a prophet and we should thank her even if we don’t agree with all that she says. Maybe we should stop referring to her as a traitor to her faith.
Maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer had it right when he wrote from prison:
“Religious man] must therefore live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. He must live a “secular” life, and thereby share in God’s sufferings. He may live a “secular” life (as one who has been freed from false religious obligations and inhibitions). To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man–not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.”